“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” – Genesis 6: 5-8
Why is God so violent in the Old Testament?
It’s a question i’ve heard people ask time and time again. The New Testament is full of forgiveness, acceptance, and Jesus petting lambs. The Old Testament is full of fire, brimstone, and rivers of blood. Why? Did God change at some point in history?
Our first response is usually to point out that God is a God of grace in the Old Testament too. We could speak of God’s unconditional rescue of Israel out of Egypt, even though they continually grumbled and rebelled against him. We could talk about God’s patience with Abraham, Noah, or Sarah; whom God loved unconditionally and forgave though they sinned. We could even point out that the coming of Jesus is established and continually reiterated in the Old Testament. All of God’s grace in the New is promised first in the Old, and also demonstrated in his many acts of forgiveness and love.
This is true and right. It is good to point out that God is a God of grace the whole way through the Bible. But there is something missing from this picture, and anybody who has read much of the New Testament will know what. We must point out that God remains a God of holiness and wrath in the New Testament also.
Jesus speaks more about eternal judgement and hell than any other figure in the Bible. Much more. The fact that a final judgement for sin is coming and repentance to faith in Him is the only path to forgiveness, is THE major theme of Jesus’ ministry. The kingdom of God is coming! A welcome arrival for the faithful to be greeted with cheers and enthusiasm… but also an invading army that signals doom for his enemies. Setting the world right also means condemning its wrongs.
The New Testament is also full of appeals to repent and live a godly life. Anybody who thinks that the Christian faith being about “salvation through grace alone” leads us to be uncaring about how we think, live, and act; hasn’t understood the gospel. Yes, Christians are saved by God’s grace alone; but God shows us his grace not only by forgiving us, but also by changing our hearts.
God’s grace is not abstract or legalistic, forgiving us on paper and leaving our lives unchanged. It transforms us inwardly and makes us live lives of obedience. This is so much the case that New Testament writers frequently point out that anyone who claims to be forgiven, and yet continues to live a life of disobedience to the word of God, has not actually accepted Jesus and is not yet saved, (Rom 6:1-4, 1 John 1:5-7, Matt 5:17-20, 1 John 3:1-10, 1 Cor 6:9-11). While Christians aren’t saved by works but by faith, the gospel is clear nonetheless. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
With this in view, I hope it is clear that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old. Not only because in both God is graciousn, but also because in both, God is holy and judges sin.
When I answer this be prepared. I won’t lie to you by pretending that God is never violent. It is plain that the world around us is violent. If God is sovereign over all things and has a good purpose in all things, we must conclude that he has a good purpose even for the violence which his world is subject to while it awaits redemption. With that in view, I would like to suggest three ways in which the violence of God reveals his goodness.
1: God’s justice empowers us to make peace.
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” – Romans 12:19
Nobody really doubts that wrongdoing deserves punishment. In fact, one of the great moral hurdles that time and time again our species needs to overcome is the human desire for retribution. Humans have an innate need to bring down and judge those whom they perceive as having done wrong. Humans innately desire justice. In the context of the Bible ancient people were tempted to seek revenge when they were wronged. To kill their enemies and repay evil with bloodshed in a brutal world full of injustice.
In our present setting, our resentment and outrage is not lessened. We want to squash the people who do wrong in our eyes and this sense of injustice all too easily spills over to violence. We aren’t actually that different for all our courts and civility.
If we as people are going to carry our hurts without taking revenge into our own hands, we need to have confidence that justice will be served. If we are not confident in our judicial systems and processes, we seek our own forms of justice. The knowledge that God will one day judge with absolute truth and justice is then a great comfort to us. And in the Bible, the violence of God is actually given to us as the basis for our own non-violence.
In short, do not take life; not because evil doesn’t deserve death but because taking life isn’t your job. God will judge in time. Be confident in his justice and wait. Christians are free to live in the world as people of peace. Not because we delusionally think that nothing is worth fighting for, or that evil should not be punished. Rather we trust God so much that we put off violence, knowing that he will in time set all things right and repay evil.
We have strength to endure wrongdoing and still rejoice, because we have a God who will avenge us.
Furthermore if we have done wrong, we know that our God will not only judge sin… but that he has already done so on the cross. We cannot talk about the violence of God for long without mentioning the crucifixion where God did violence to himself on account of his people. If your conscience troubles you for the wrong you have done, look at Jesus. See his wounds, his hands, his feet. There is your punishment. Jesus took it for you. God has already punished your sins if you have turned to faith in Jesus, and guilt has no home any longer in your heart.
2: God brings suffering to reveal our real problems.
“I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord. I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord. Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God.” – Amos 4:10-12
Nobody enjoys the sound of a fire alarm. That’s why they work so well. When the fire alarm sounds, you know to snap to action and get away from the fire. Nobody with a healthy mind enjoys physical pain. And yet, without physical pain we would cause all kinds of damage to our bodies through carelessness. We complain when we feel pain in a joint injury that prevents us from doing sport, but that pain is our body’s natural way of telling us to rest that part. Ultimately although it is unpleasant, feeling pain at certain times is important for our wellbeing.
Suffering in all its forms is similar. It alerts us at an existential level to the shortcomings of life in this world. If we do not suffer, we do not see our need for something greater than the present. Our need to return to God and seek something bigger than ourselves. We all intuitively understand that those who have never suffered any hardship in life usually lack wisdom. In my experience, most people who come to faith in God apart from being raised in a Christian family, have been prompted by suffering in their life. This isn’t universally the case, but it is common enough that i’m sure you will have noticed it also. But this isn’t only an anecdote, the Bible makes the same point.
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” – Ecclesiastes 7:4
We don’t often look for God’s kindness in suffering, but the Bible is happy to draw that connection even when speaking about exceedingly dark things. If we think that God has no right to take away good things from us like health or wealth, then we are exactly the people who need to learn the lesson which suffering teaches. Nothing in this world really belongs to us. Nothing in this world can really last or satisfy.
Money goes. People die. Health fails. Homes change. Experiences are forgotten. Pride runs to ruin in time. But love the giver and not only His gifts, and you will have a hope that no power on earth can conquer.
3: God is right when he withholds life from a humanity which corrupts its purpose.
‘When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever,for they are corrupt; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”’ – Genesis 6:1-3
This point may appear blunt or oversimple, but it is the most important of all for us to understand. God has the right to take away that which he gives. Even Job who suffered more than any of us saw through to this.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” – Job 1:21
We need to clearly understand our place as we ask this question. We are not within our rights to accuse God of any injustice when he takes away something which he also created and which we have no inherent right to. It is only by his grace and his Spirit that we live, move, and have our being. The breath within our lungs and every beat of our heart, is his free and undeserved gift and should he choose to measure these he has every right to do so. God is just. To accuse God of injustice or challenge his rule is the very nature of sin.
And as it so happens, God is so just that when the thing which he sustains is corrupted and ceases to achieve its purpose in his perfect order, he cuts it off. If a power tool catches hair and starts to pull, you hit the kill-switch. If a car is veering off the road and toward a tree, you hit the brakes. If a dog becomes dangerous so that it bites and attacks, you put it down. And when humanity rejects God and lives to serve their own decadent and disordered desires, God withholds his Spirit from them. He no longer gives them eternal life.
This is not grounds for us to call him unjust; rather he does this because he is just.
It might help us here to realize that “death” doesn’t exist. That’s a rather strange thing to say isn’t it? But I mean it in the same sense that I would say that darkness doesn’t exist. Or that cold doesn’t exist. Or that poverty doesn’t exist. These things have no form in themselves, but they are words which describe a lacking. Darkness is what we call the absence of light. Cold is what we call the absence of heat. Poverty is what we call the absence of wealth. So too, death is what we call the absence of life.
God accordingly does not “bring death” in any literal sense. Rather he ceases giving the life which constantly proceeds from him as much as light constantly proceeds from the Sun. His decision to condemn us in death then is really not a commissive action, but rather an unwillingness to enable us to continue in sin.
Consider all of the above when you come across God’s judgement in the Old Testament and the New. But realize, that even if you understand these things perfectly, you still won’t be perfectly comfortable with the Canaanite genocide. No gap in understanding can account for the depth of emotion you feel when you consider the death of an entire people. God knows this, and this is actually the Bible’s intention. You are supposed to feel the horror of these moments, and you are supposed to consider that these people could be you. When God commanded Israel to take the promised land it came with a warning.
“After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” – Deuteronomy 9: 4-6
We are told numerous times that the Canaanite people practiced forms of idolatry so obscene that even God, long-suffering and patient, could tolerate them no longer. Israel are warned that if they do the same, God will also drive them out in a like manner. This is made clear.
“The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” – Deuteronomy 12: 29-31
As such, the horror of what was done to the nations whom God judged was used by God as a warning for the people of Israel. You are not supposed to pass over these events unmoved. They are supposed to disturb you. You are supposed to wonder what it would be like to be these people. You are supposed to realize what a terrible thing it would be to oppose the living God.
If God’s wrath in the Bible disturbs you, then don’t turn away from him because of it. See that his justice is not only right, but also terrifying.
“It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31
And consider also that this terror was exactly what Jesus faced, as he carried God’s wrath which was reserved for us. Consider that if we know God as a Father, it is only because we have been forgiven and adopted first. And if we have been forgiven and adopted, it is only because the terrifying wrath of God has been emptied upon Jesus Christ the Son of God. We are people of the cross. God’s violence is not secondary or a side point to our faith. We are not free to shy away from or disagree with this thought. The very basis of our faith is redemption through judgement, and mercy through wrath. Jesus’ death for our life.
So what I want you to do most of all when the violence of God confronts you, is to consider the one who took it in your place. As Israel was instructed to remember Canaan, so that they would not repeat their sins and face a similar fate… you are instituted to remember Christ. And yet, not only so that you should be careful but also that you should be glad. You are heirs of a greater hope than the Israelites of the old covenant, and this hope was bought at a great price.